Only four weeks after WrestleMania 28, the WWE will be holding their first pay-per-view of the new wrestling year, Extreme Rules, at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois.
If the venue sounds familiar, it's because it was the location of last July's Money in the Bank, where hometown hero CM Punk beat John Cena to win his first WWE Championship title in what was arguably the best match of 2011.
Punk, currently 130 days into his second WWE title reign, will be defending his belt against Chris Jericho at this Sunday's WrestleMania. Punk has largely been expected to retain his title and move on to a new feud, but according to recent reports, Jericho may not be leaving the WWE as early as expected, which has fans speculating as to what the company's plans are for Punk and Jericho in the future.
If Punk and Jericho are expected to feud over the next few months, their match at WrestleMania should throw more fuel on the fire and the simplest, most logical way to bring a new twist to their rivalry would be for Punk to get screwed out of his title this Sunday, forcing him to chase Jericho in order to reclaim it.
The new Jericho rumors have also brought up a debate that I've seen Bleacher Report readers comment on many times: Is Punk a more interesting character when he is the champion or when he's chasing the championship?
Between the time Alberto Del Rio cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase at SummerSlam to when Punk reclaimed the WWE title at Survivor Series last year, it was exciting to be a Punk fan. Even when saddled with the Kevin Nash storyline that ultimately went nowhere, Punk was driven to fight for what he believed in and to prove himself as the "Best Wrestler in the World."
When he had a chip on his shoulder, Punk was more pointed on the mic and even though he had turned face, he retained his characteristic heel short temper and arrogance that had made him a cult icon for years before he dropped his first "pipe bomb."
Once Punk finally won the WWE title for the second time last November, there was a collective sigh of relief among Punk's fans that their devotion to the "Straight-Edge Superstar" had been worth it.
But since December's TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs event, many of his most ardent supporters have grown bored with Punk's new face persona and lack of a viable contender to defend his title against. A feud with Dolph Ziggler was cut short after Royal Rumble and even his current feud has been criticized for having Jericho coming off as a much weaker opponent to Punk so far, both in the ring and on the mic.
Having Punk as the WWE Champion is great for Punk's legacy and great for the face of the company, but it hasn't given Punk many opportunities to be as brash and loudmouth as when so many wrestling fans fell in love with him. Many believe that by stripping Punk of his title, it will re-ignite his passion and force him to be more aggressive than he's been lately.
Regardless of what transpires at WrestleMania, Extreme Rules is being held right outside Punk's hometown of Chicago in an arena that already has a storied history when it comes to Punk's WWE career.
The primary focus of the pay-per-view will be on Punk, and as they've proven at 2011's Money in the Bank and last year's Post-Christmas Monday Night Raw, the Allstate Arena is an extremely vocal pro-Punk crowd. Punk will get a huge pop no matter what position he's in coming into the show, but any decision or change in his championship status will depend on how the WWE wants to milk that audience.
Should Punk drop the belt at WrestleMania but win it back at Extreme Rules, the crowd could top their celebratory Money in the Bank reaction at and tear the house down. Should Punk retain his title at WrestleMania and come back to Chicago as champion only to drop the belt, the WWE could have a riot on their hands.
Either scenario makes for great television.
What also needs to be considered is how Punk's championship status and storyline will affect pay-per-view buys and overall WWE TV ratings after WrestleMania. Right up until The Rock came back in late February to help promote Mania, Punk was the most visible WWE Superstar in the mainstream media and many expect Punk to be the unofficial face of the WWE in the new year.
If Punk remains a fighting champion for most of the year, he has the ability to carry the brand as the WWE Champion and create a long reign that can build impressive feuds with the likes of John Cena and potentially The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin. But if Punk is forced to chase the title to the end of April or beyond, there's also the opportunity for his current (and potentially new post-Mania) fans to have a storyline worth investing in week-to-week.
Though his future is uncertain after WrestleMania, Punk's current feud with Jericho will drive much of the WWE's momentum throughout April. Whether he comes back to Chicago as the WWE Champion or by challenging Jericho for a rematch, Punk and his passionate hometown fanbase will most certainly make Extreme Rules a pay-per-view worth buying.
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